Taking time to build the resolve to take over as company president
In 2016 you became president and CEO. Was this something that was laid out when Mr. Hiramatsu was still president?
Now that’s a question that lots of people have asked me (laughs). So, it wasn’t exactly based on special instructions. But, sometime after I joined the board of directors Hiramatsu said something like, “I’m going to want to move on to other things in the next few years, so the board needs to decide on who is gonna take over as president.”
There were 4 of us on the board at that time so we got together and talked everything over. We also took advice from Hiramatsu on this too. In the end everything came down to the fact that I had the worked the longest onsite at the restaurant, and based on that we made a unanimous decision in my favor.
So, after that I took over as president and Hiramatsu took a spot as chairman, which was right at the same time that we were really moving forward with preparations for our upcoming entry into the hotel business.
Did that bring on a lot of pressure?
Yeah, it definitely did! Unlike our chairman, Hiramatsu, I don’t have that kind of sheer power or charisma. Nonetheless, he told me that I didn’t have to model myself on him, and that it was okay to be my own kind of company president, which boosted my confidence up.
He went on to say, “I’m a chef and my personality reflects that. I got to this point without worrying too hard about appeasing customers. That being said, you came from the service world, which relies on appeasing customers. So, think about maybe applying that to your role as president.” This calmed my nerves as bit, and I decided to take on the work in my own kind of way.
I also felt that someone needed to be there to inherit the company. If someone came in from outside the company to take things over for Hiramatsu, then they would have a very hard time understanding all the ins and outs of our restaurant business. Growing the company to the extent that we did and successfully going public on the stock market stemmed from the founding ideas of our company, which was something that I wanted to firmly preserve.
There was also the understanding that everyone at the company was like a family. So who better to take the reins than someone from within. I also have personally put a lot of time into the company, which makes me want to leave my own mark here as well.
You went from working in service at the restaurant to head of the company. Did that change how you felt about your workplace?
I’m not sure how the staff back at the restaurant felt about it, but Hiramatsu always treasured service, and I don’t think that changed at all.
I did hear a lot from those around me about how my promotion to company president opened up new doors for servers who had hopes and dreams for something more. I take that as a good thing.
Now that Mr. Hiramatsu is chairman, what all does that mean in terms of how leadership is divvied up?
A chairman doesn’t carry the right to represent the company, and the role itself is separated from leadership on the business end of things, which allows me to work freely in that respect. I’m still young at the moment, so I’ve got some vigor left (laughs).
Right now I’m mainly focused on training our workforce. This is a part of a larger plan since Hiramatsu himself has been thinking for a long time about creating a school.
I’m thinking about how to form the next generation while I gather up experienced staff members and focus on management and culinary studies. We’re doing things like this to work on new culinary projects and developments.
Communicating the value of bringing people and food together through the lens of a company
Now that you command a workforce of over 600 employees, how do you apply your team-based philosophies of shared goals and ideas across such a large group?
At all of our establishments we have a firm commitment to having every employee eat together during their lunch breaks. We want to use our company as a way to spread the idea of bringing people and food together. This particular management philosophy came from Hiramatsu as well. In order to practice these values we have to start by doing it ourselves.
When chefs and servers come together and share the same meal it makes room for natural and spontaneous conversation amongst each other. This also makes it easier for everyone to support one another by teaching shared knowledge or checking in when someone is feeling down. This is how you can share an idea across an entire workforce, which is why we value these shared meals so much.
That sounds like a simple and easy message for younger people to grasp.
Something that I’d really like to share with young people in particular is that working in the food industry is extremely tough, but once you realize that your work is for the good of society, there can be an immense sense of pride in that. In today’s world people are prone to be sucked into their phones and games, which limits their chances to connect with others. I think more and more people have closed off their own inner feelings because of this. And, there is more crime now that showcases a lack of awareness to people’s pain and anguish. I would say that all of these things are connected. When you take these issues into account, I think you can also see why people here are more disconnected from the idea of sharing meals together, which is supposed to be the foundation of Japanese food culture.
If a space is set up to naturally facilitate communication between people, where values and time can be shared together over a meal with people outside of your own family, then that same space can be a real center of happiness. And this isn’t just limited to working with food, it’s important for me to create more opportunities for people to experience this.
Lastly, can you talk a bit about your goals for the future?
First things first I want to figure out what my own version of being president looks like. I want to make sure I’m on firm footing about that, because one of my goals is to develop the foundation of our hotel business, which is approaching its 3rd year of operations.
With the Olympics coming to Tokyo we’re are in a period of intense tourism here in Japan, and things are looking even better than expected. Nonetheless, in time things will split apart and get weeded out. I’m keeping that in mind so we can prepare ourselves and handle whatever comes our way.
Also, as our investments in hotels have continued over these last years it’s been hard to keep profits soaring like they did before. Our shareholders aren’t happy about that. I want to get profits up as much as I can in the immediate future and start establishing the next steps from there.
During my years in restaurant service I got see happy customers and employees right before my eyes, but now is the time to always be mindful of the next 5 years, and the next 10 years after that. I have an executive vice president to help keep our numbers good, and our board of directors includes chefs, which adds a good amount of diversified perspectives to our business discussions. I want to move forward with all of us working together and using our shared talents to decide the best course of action that we need to take.
(Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Text: Tomoko Murayama, Photography: Tomonari Shimizu)